Most alternate histories only reverse a few major historical events. They show us how bad it would be if the Nazis won World War II or the South won the Civil War. Although the new novel by Ben H. Winters Underground airlines treads familiar territory in this regard, but few alternate histories are as complex and gruesome as they come.
Underground airlines is set in 2016, where slavery is still legal in part of the United States. In this reality, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1861 and the Civil War never happened. Instead, a compromise was made. To this day, four Southern states (the “Hard Four”) still hold people as property.
The main character of the book, usually Victor, is an African American who works as a “soul-stealer” – actually he is a bounty hunter who brings escaped slaves back to the Hard Four. He works for the Federal Marshals, and he’s the kind of manipulative, cold-efficient monster that populates often film noir. But as he recalls his own experiences as a slave in the South, he begins to wonder what he’s doing.
Victor infiltrates and explores the world of the Underground Airlines, the successor to the 19th century Underground Railroad. Priests, teachers, doctors and policemen secretly work to bring people out of slavery and they dream of abolition. But in 2016, the dream of ending slavery in America is further away than ever. Just like Colson Whitehead’s critically acclaimed new novel The Underground Railway (where the Underground Railroad includes an actual train), Winters’ Underground airlines uses an unusual conceit to dramatize the totalizing, horrific nature of slavery.
The most fascinating things in Underground airlines is in the details – Winters clearly put a lot of thought into what the 150+ years since Lincoln’s assassination would have looked like. The result is a United States much more isolated from the global community. Under something called the European Consensus, most countries refuse to do business with a nation that still has slaves. You couldn’t buy a Japanese car in the US until 2012, and Victor’s car still has a tape deck (the US market is “catching up with CDs,” the narrator says).
The further you go down the rabbit hole, the weirder it gets. We catch a glimpse of alternate versions of Michael Jackson, James Brown, Jesse Owens and other famous figures of the 20th century. Blaxploitation movies were still around in the 1970s, but there were slaves in them too. There is a Norman Rockwell painting from 1954 that dramatizes a very different milestone in American history. We get hints of another version of the Civil War, which took place in the 20th century and involved several players. We also get a glimpse into the complicated politics of an America that has always had slavery and the kinds of constitutional issues this raises.
A big part of the fascinating thing about alternative history is getting a glimpse of “our world today, but different.” Winters exploits the notion of modernity coexisting with slavery for all its worth. The cognitive dissonance at seeing the internet and cell phones in an America where humans are still held as property is disturbing and horrifying, as we like to think of slavery as belonging to a barbaric world that we have evolved beyond.
Underground airlines is really another way to talk about how the real legacy of slavery continues to affect us all. Most of the book is not set in the Hard Four, but in the rest of the United States, where Victor goes on a hunt for an escaped slave named Jackdaw. We get to see the communities, both black and white, living on the brink of slavery. We witness the “peculiar attitude” seep into everything – our real life nightmares of police brutality and discrimination are made even more raw by the suspicion that every African American could be an escaped slave. We don’t venture into the world of 21st century slavery until the end of the book, and it’s as industrialized and terrifying as you’d expect.
Winters is known for mixing detective fiction with other genres – he made waves with his post-apocalyptic Last policeman trilogy. Here, he’s basically telling a hardboiled story along the lines of Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, or Raymond Chandler, in an alternate universe. Its morally compromised protagonist is the perfect counterpart to tarnished heroes like Hammett’s Continental Op. The noir tropes, in which the layers of a terrible secret are peeled back and the same people appear in different environments, work incredibly well to illuminate the dark corners of Winters’ terrible world.
The only problem with mixing hardboiled fiction and dystopian alternate history comes towards the end of Underground airlines, when the film noir tropes and otherwise elegant world-building finally begin to collide. The requirements of a hardboiled thriller require things to come together in a certain way, one that feels forced in the context of Underground airlines. The last part of the book – which features a gruesome, sci-fi revelation – is also the least satisfying, as Winters isn’t quite able to make his noir influences work for him, rather than the other way around.
That being said, Underground airlines ultimately manages some powerful moments that provide unsettling answers to the novel’s central problem: How can we remain human in a world shaped by other people’s buying and selling? You will not disembark Underground airlines with some definitive answers, but you’ll probably find yourself looking at the real 2016 with new eyes.
The best alternate histories offer fresh perspectives on the real-life version of historical events. By that measure Underground airlines is a triumph.